August 9, 2007

Winning Writer

Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal To Head Scripter Committee

By Dan Knapp

Bee Season and Losing Isaiah are among the novels Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal has adapted for the big screen.
After more than three decades of balancing a successful show-business career with the demands of family life, it comes as no surprise that much of producer-screenwriter Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal’s work deals with family relationships.

Now, Gyllenhaal brings her entertainment-industry acumen and her talent for interpersonal observation to the USC Libraries as she prepares to chair the selection committee for the coveted USC Libraries Scripter Award.

Sponsored by the Friends of the USC Libraries, and chaired by Professor Howard A. Rodman the Scripter is the only award that honors a film’s screenwriter alongside the author of the book, short story or novella upon which it is based. The winners are honored at a black-tie soiree in USC’s Doheny Memorial Library each spring.

In January, all eyes will be on Gyllenhaal and the selection committee — which includes Writers Guild of America members, fiction and nonfiction authors, film-industry executives, USC faculty and members of the Friends — as they choose the year’s most accomplished book-to-film adaptation.

Scripter producer Toni Miller said that nearly four dozen films — ranging from the anticipated cinematic versions of The Golden Compass and Love in the Time of Cholera to recent hits 300 and 1408 — are in contention for the award. To be eligible, films must be adapted from an English-language book and be exhibited in theaters on or before Dec. 31.

Miller described Gyllenhaal as the ideal person to take the reins for Scripter’s platinum anniversary. “Naomi is an experienced screenwriter of adapted material, and she brings the stories to life with great creative skill and an authentic voice and sensibility,” Miller said. “We are thrilled to work with her as selection-committee chair for this special 20th anniversary celebration of literature and film.”

Gyllenhaal is intimately familiar with the adaptation process. She has adapted several novels for the big screen, including Mary McGarry Morris’ A Dangerous Woman, Seth Margolis’ Losing Isaiah and Myla Goldberg’s Bee Season.

Gyllenhaal described the book-to-film process as more than simply creating a screenplay from an author’s manuscript. Often it means finding an interesting angle to a story and fleshing it out.

“When I read a book I want to adapt, I ask myself ‘Why is there a movie around these characters that would make the rest of us want to watch it?’ ” Gyllenhaal said. “If you are doing your job, you are creating something new. There can be another story within a book that needs to be explored.”

While Gyllenhaal has enjoyed success with her adapted scripts, her original screenplay for the 1988 Sidney Lumet film Running on Empty earned an Academy Award nomination and a Golden Globe victory. She also served as executive producer on the film.

Gyllenhaal’s next project is an adaptation of Marijane Meaker’s Shockproof Sydney Skate for Fox 2000.

“It’s a story about an unusual relationship between a boy, his mother and what real love is,” she said.

Gyllenhaal’s first professional writing credit was for the TV miniseries The Best of Families, and her first feature film was the Sissy Spacek-Kevin Kline romantic drama Violets Are Blue.

“Observing family allows you to use a small intimate palette to comment on the greater culture,” Gyllenhaal explained. “Family contains the best of us and the worst. And we can all relate to it, as we’re all part of some kind of family.

“If our job as writers is to affect the culture in a larger way — to disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed — it’s the way in.”

And what of her own family?

Although the mother of two and grandmother of one is understandably protective of her family’s privacy, her voice changes when she mentions the Gyllenhaal clan.

“My family is my greatest joy,” she said.